Dragon in the room: who’s afraid of Confucius Institutes?

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A series of recent incidents, including donations to political parties and grooming candidates for local elections, show China is trying to influence Australian politics and public opinion. The Australian government and intelligence agencies are right to be concerned and take action. However, there is also a danger of seeing something sinister in every aspect of China’s interactions with Australia.

The reaction to Confucius Institutes and Classrooms is one such example. Confucius Institutes, of which there are 14 in Australia, are established through cooperation among an Australian university, a Chinese university and the Office of Chinese Language Council International (Hanban). Confucius Classrooms, of which there are 67, work on a similar model and are located in primary and secondary schools.

These Chinese language and culture centers often attract criticism because they receive part of their funds from Hanban, a body that operates directly under the Chinese Ministry of Education and has members from 12 government ministries and commissions. Critics maintain that this government connection means they will be used to restrict academic freedom, spread propaganda, conduct espionage activities and undermine Australian values and institutions.

Lack of evidence

There is, however, no evidence of any Confucius Institute or Classroom doing such things, and staff who work there have told journalists and academics (including me) that such concerns are unfounded. One Confucius Institute director I interviewed said such claims were “absolute rubbish,” and another said they were “utter nonsense.” Are we to believe staff at Confucius Institutes and Classrooms knowingly choose to keep quiet about insidious goings-on, or even lie when they are asked about them? This stretches credibility and borders on conspiracy-theory thinking.

The critics do have a point that most Confucius Institutes and Classrooms steer clear of controversial or sensitive topics. This occurs through self-censorship rather than overt direction from Hanban or any other Chinese authority.

As one Confucius Institute director told academic Falk Hartig, “There are no restrictions, but obviously if I would pay the Dalai Lama to come to Australia with Hanban money they would not be happy. You don’t have to be a genius to know that.” But this invites the question, are Tibet, Taiwan, the Falun Gong and the South China Sea relevant to Chinese-language classes and cultural activities? These topics can and should be pursued by others, but they are not what Confucius Institutes and Classrooms are set up to do.

It’s also unrealistic to expect any government-funded language and culture promotion initiatives to present a country in a negative light. Would Spain’s Cervantes Institute run activities on Basque and Catalan separatism or the territorial dispute over Gibraltar?

Australia’s foreign policy 

There has also not been a shift toward pro-China positions in Australia’s foreign policy. The much-publicized Sam Dastyari affair did not result in a change to Labor Party policy, let alone government policy. The recently released Foreign Policy White Paper emphasizes Australia’s desire for the US to continue its leadership role in the Asia-Pacific region and criticizes China’s actions in the South China Sea, as have recent statements from the foreign minister and the prime minister.

Australians’ views of China

Public opinion polls show interesting results regarding Australians’ views of China. The latest Pew Global Attitudes Survey showed the proportion of Australians with a favorable view of China increased from 52% in 2008 to 64% in 2017, making Australia unique among Asia-Pacific nations, where favorable views declined overall. Whether and how much of this increase is due to Confucius Institutes and Classrooms is difficult to determine, but it’s worth asking what it is about China that makes people hold favorable views towards it.

We can find more details about Australians’ attitudes toward China in the 2016 Lowy Institute Poll. It found that Chinese people (85%), China’s culture and history (79%) and China’s economic growth (75%) had the most positive influence on respondents’ views of China, while China’s human-rights record (86%), military activities in the region (79%), system of government (73%), environmental policies (67%) and investment in Australia (59%) had the most negative influence.

Even assuming Confucius Institutes and Classrooms do contribute to positive views of China in some way, they are not making people more positive toward the Chinese government’s policies and actions, as critics fear. Indeed, in the 2017 Lowy poll only 54% of Australians said they trusted China to act responsibly in the world (compared with 90% for the UK, 86% for Japan and Germany and 64% for the US and India), and a mere 8% saw China as Australia’s best friend in the world.

Australia’s foreign policies and public opinions don’t paint a picture of a government and public in thrall of China.

Benefits to Chinese language, culture education

Critics also often ignore the contribution Confucius Institutes and Classrooms make to Chinese language and culture education. They provide valuable teaching staff, materials and classes to underfunded universities and schools, and run a lot of cultural activities and public lectures.

Chinese has long been considered a priority language in initiatives such as the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools (NALSAS) plan and the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program (NALSSP), but their success has been limited by a lack of sufficient and consistent commitment and funding. The support available through Confucius Institutes and Classrooms is an obvious way to address this.

Confucius rightly warned against the dangers of an oppressive government, but he also advised that we should discover the truth about things through careful observation, analysis and learning. More of this should be injected into the discussion about Confucius Institutes and Classrooms in Australia.

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